Disclaimer: This is a long one and so will Week 2 be! So maybe grab a cuppa and a biscuit, put on ‘The Light’ by The Album leaf (I feel like that song should be the soundtrack to my life) and enjoy. Thank you for taking the time! I really hope you’re inspired and encouraged by this little story of mine x
August 27th approached fast and I was getting increasingly nervous about the trip. Was going by myself the right decision? Was going at all the right thing to do?
What would I find when I got there? Would we have anything to say to each other? How would my siblings receive me? Would they like me?
Anyway, you probably get the picture – thankfully I had my hands full with work so I didn’t get too lost in all those questions. And again, my amazing support system didn’t fail me.
Sunday after Sunday I would get connected with amazing people who either lived in Alabama or knew people there who offered to be a safe haven should I need to speak to someone or just get away while I was over there.
And then all my AMAZING friends in the US showed up – my friend Jackie offered to fly over from New York, my friend Steve pretty much offered to fly me to see him and his family or fly over to Alabama himself. Even though I didn’t end up taking any of them up on their offers, the simple fact of knowing that there were people all over the world who cared for me and were willing to get on a plane to hold my hand if needed, meant so much and gave me such a sense of confidence that – whatever the two weeks in Alabama would hold – I was looked after and it would all be okay.
So there I was. Monday, 27th August, my beautiful friends Jacinth and Kirsty picked me up to take me to the airport and hold my hands until I had to go through security. Once through, I was by myself. After doing the usual airport strolls I headed towards my gate – only to find out that my flight was quite delayed. I was determined not to let any of that phase me so did what any millennial would do: Play phone games and waste time on social media…
Boarded and en route I did what I always tend to do when I fly to the US (weird habit I know) – I watched movies pertaining to the history of my people. But this trip it all felt different. For the first time ever I knew that I was indeed a part of that fabric, part of that story and all the feeling of connectedness I had felt my whole life was real.
I had a layover in Miami where I just about made my connecting flight (thanks to the friendliest airport staff I’ve ever met!) and then boarded my last flight to Birmingham, AL. (Side note: I’m pretty sure that was the tiniest plane I have ever been on!)
And then I arrived in Birmingham. I wasn’t going to stay with my dad while I was over there (even though he had offered), but knowing myself I would need my own, separate space when I got there. He also wanted to pick me up from the airport so – which I was still nervous about, knowing I’d be coming off a plane after about 13hrs in the air – I said yes to that.
I had a plan all ready in my head – I would get off the plane, find baggage claim, freshen up and then meet him on the other side of security. Unfortunately I hadn’t considered that domestic flights at Shuttlesworth airport didn’t require you to walk through security, meaning baggage claim and where people were waiting was all in the same space.
So busted plan, tired from a long flight and more emotions than anyone could ever articulate on board, I got on the escalators down to where I would meet my dad for the very first time in my life.
As the music started to fade in, everyone around us blurred into the distance, fairies took my carry on for me and I floated towards dad who – tears streaming down his face embraced me….Just kidding.
This is where Hollywood has messed us all up! There was actually none of that. I mean sure, I had music in my head, which is normal for me, but that was about it ha!
I got down the escalators and there he was. Sitting on a bench waiting for me, getting out his phone as soon as he saw me to film the first time he’d ever see me since holding me when I was a baby.
And I think it was at that moment I realised that this wasn’t a big deal for me alone – this must’ve been a massive deal for him too. In me he’d be confronted with a lot of things from his past, good and bad, that had never been in front of him forcing him to look them straight in the eye. A note from the past in form of his long lost daughter.
People have asked me many times if I cried in that moment. Funny enough I didn’t. I don’t know if it’s because I was tired or still running on adrenaline but in a weird way it felt so familiar seeing him there. Something definitely clicked when he gave me a hug. The first time I received a hug from my earthly father. That was a moment sure, but then again, we had to get my luggage and make our way to Tuscaloosa. There was real life stuff to do, logistics to sort out, so we kind of just got on with it.
And that is probably one of the biggest lessons I’ve learned over the course of this journey: Miracles come dressed as people, covered in skin, are full of daily mundane things and sometimes don’t feel like the butterfly, rainbow sparkly moments Hollywood has made us believe they would. BUT that makes them no less miracles. The question is whether we have eyes to see and a heart to appreciate the divine at work even when it’s dressed in skin. Funny, somehow I think that’s what Jesus must’ve experienced even as he walked this earth…anyway, I digress.
Once we had all my stuff, we went to the car and hit the road. Remember how I was worried we’d not have anything to talk about? Well I worried in vain! Dad was ready to chat and I loved that he was – it allowed me to listen and take in the beautiful nature that made up the landscape of Alabama. We arrived in Tuscaloosa about an hour later and after meeting the beautiful and kind Ms. Regina, I asked dad to take me to my air bnb so I could get settled and get some rest. We agreed that we’d be in touch the next day, when I was ready and take things from there.
At my Air Bnb I must’ve sat on my bed and stared at the wall for a good hour. I couldn’t believe that I was here, couldn’t believe that I had met my dad – the moment I had dreamt of so many times over the course of my life. I didn’t know what to think or feel.
I ended up unpacking, eating and – don’t judge me – watching Grey’s Anatomy. It was all getting so much, the only thing I felt like I doing was switch off and think about nothing.
The next morning I got up and after a couple of hours of fussing about, I decided to uber to one of the coffee shops I had found before getting on a plane (you gotta get your priorities right…and all the coffee addicts said…AMEN! ha). At the coffee shop I spent some time journalling and reflecting on where I was and what I was hoping the next two weeks would bring. Realising that I couldn’t start this trip without asking dad some hard and honest questions, I messaged him asking him to meet me by the river, a short walk from the coffee shop.
That conversation was probably one of the hardest chats I’ve ever had to have. There are parts of it I will not disclose here as they are not my story to tell (though dad and I spoke on the phone the other day and he promised to let me write a book about his story, so stay tuned ha!) but suffice to say that we both sat there crying at one point.
I had to ask ‘Why didn’t you come for me’ and had hoped for an answer along the lines of ‘Well I’m glad you asked. You see, I’ve been a secret agent for the US government and coming for you would’ve blown my cover so unfortunately my hands were tied – but now I’m retired so I’m so glad you found me!’ (can you tell I’m into movies?!) – unfortunately we all know that that was not the answer I got. Ultimately, there wasn’t really an answer and I think that was the hardest pill to swallow. I have to also say though that he navigated the conversation really well. Rather than trying to make excuses where we both knew were none, he apologised and asked for my forgiveness. It takes a real man to do that.
Our vie onto the Black Warrior River as we had our first deep chat
Dad on the bench we shed a tear or two
We left our little spot after a couple of hours and – after a quick tip to Target – dad dropped me off at my room again. I felt like a weight had lifted and a new one had settled on my heart. He was truly glad I was here and he really wanted to spend time with me. That part was amazing. Not only that, but he seemed to be a decent guy. But then there was the other, mostly irrational and yet heavy thought that at times still to this day feels like it could eventually get the better of me: He didn’t come. Not because he was a horrible person, not because he was indifferent to my existence but because – whatever his reasons – made a choice not to. That was almost harder than had I discovered he was super uninterested or a real jerk. And the truth is, that is something I’ll have to get my head around as time goes on.
Be it as it may, I went to bed that night feeling somewhat better about it all and ready to head into all my time in Alabama would bring.
The next day I hit up a different coffee shop to do some work.
One of the things I noticed straight away was that I was the only black person in that cafe. I had sensed that the day before in the other place too, but was a little too preoccupied with the looming conversation with my dad to pay it any real mind. This time though, I noticed and couldn’t help but ask dad when he picked me up after, what that was all about. He looked at me like I was somewhat slow and said : Well ‘we’ don’t really come to this part of town. I immediately remembered where I was. The very noticeable separation became something I couldn’t ignore for the rest of my trip. I had always been around white people – growing up that was to my dismay as I was always the only black kid, but as I grew older and especially since moving to London I have absolutely loved being in an environment where black and white people live alongside each other not just next to but with each other. Don’t get me wrong I have experienced racism and know that it is still a real issue wherever you go primarily in the western world, but I guess having studied the history of segregation in the South, seeing that a lot of the expression was still so subtly present and racism was – at times overtly – still so tangible, brought a whole new nuance to my experience there. And I would make sure I’d get as much history as I could during my stay…
Anyway, that day we headed to meet my dad’s older sister, the first other relative I was going to meet: Aunt Velma-Jean.
I loved her as soon as I met her! She was cheeky and kind, had lots of stories to tell about dad and their childhood and absolutely HATED that I kept wanting to take pictures of her. At the end of our visit I promised I’d be back one more time before I left – a promise I kept in week 2.
After that we went to meet Cousin Ruth and her little grand baby who – which won’t be surprise to those of you who know me – loved me, ha!
I couldn’t believe how much family I had! And I hadn’t even scratched the surface yet.
Thursday was set to be the day I’d meet my first sibling. But before that we went to breakfast where I showed dad lots of pictures from my childhood. I wanted him to get a bit of a better picture of who I was and how I had grown up too, so as to help him get to know me a bit better.
After that – upon my request – dad took me to see where he grew up. Getting to see the home he spent his childhood in, the neighbourhood and hearing him talk about it all gave me such a clear picture of who he was and where I was from. Hearing both beautiful memories and the terrible ones linked to the segregation and racism he grew up in was a lot to take in.
A cousin’s house
Right outside my dad’s childhood home
Dad’s childhood home
On the way to my sister’s, we passed so many cotton fields. I couldn’t help but think of Maya Angelou’s famous poem ‘Still I Rise’ and somehow deeply knowing that I truly was my ancestors dream…And feeling the weight of responsibility. What would I do with that? The freedom I was blessed to grow up in? The education I got? The things I now knew about my heritage? Like I said, as many answers as I got, new questions moved their way to the forefront of my mind just as quickly.
We arrived at my sister Katleyn’s and there I didn’t just get to meet her but also my beautiful nephew Michael who – looking at baby pics of myself – was most definitely related to me.
It was so crazy meeting my sister. I always wanted sisters and – though I have incredible friends who are like sisters to me – actually meeting a blood sister was so emotional. We had a lovely time together, sharing about our lives a bit and enjoying little Michael loving life. I can’t wait to see them again and mostly for Katelyn to come visit and us going to Harry Potter world together
We headed home later that evening and I went to bed tired but so full – the more I got to meet family and spend time with dad, the more I knew this was only the beginning.
Friday was a big day. I had asked dad and Ms Regina whether they’d be willing to visit Selma with me. I had obviously learnt about Bloody Sunday in 1965, had read a lot about it and had seen the movie, and being so close I was desperate to go, walk where they walked, pay my respects.
So we went. And my goodness what a trip that was!
We arrived at Brown Chapel where a lot of the organising and planning for the fateful march for Voting Rights took place, the church where the wounded were cared for after the brutal attacks. I got to take a picture with dad in front of that space and from there I wanted to walk where the marchers would’ve walked.
Dad and Ms Regina outside Brown Chapel
Dad and I outside Brown Chapel
After a little bit of resistance from dad (he didn’t think it was safe for me to walk by myself) Ms Regina and I won (I pretty much said, dad, I’m a grown woman who’s been to way more dangerous places by myself ha) and I walked the path.
Now if you know me at all, you know I need a soundtrack to everything so with Ms Nina Simone in my ears I walked from Brown chapel to Edmund Pettus Bridge.
Art work on the museum wall
Art work on the museum wall
Path towards Edmund Pettus Bridge
Tears streaming down my face at points because – call me crazy – I sensed the struggles and battles fought by our people in those lands. It was like their blood was screaming from the pavement and their ghosts were pleading for justice around every corner. I was in that state of mind when a lovely elderly lady stopped me asking me about my earrings. We started a chat and I quickly knew this encounter was another god-send affirming that the trip I was on was divinely orchestrated to say the least.
Turns out the lady was none other than Ms Annie-Pearl Avery. She was one of the younger members of the SNCC back in the day and was part of the team organising the march in ’65. She was on the bridge that day. We chatted for quite a bit and I promised I would be back with dad and Ms Regina, to visit the museum for African American history she was hosting as a volunteer.
Blown away by this ‘coincidence’ I kept walking – at one point I took a left and there it was. Edmund Pettus bridge.
Edmund Pettus Bridge
In many ways it’s just a bridge like any other but for the one who knows history and has an open heart it is so much more. It’s a monument to the sacrifices made by thousands and thousands of African Americans over the centuries. It’s a reminder that the evil of racism – once unleashed – stops at nothing and a reminder that we all must do everything we can to change the narrative. As I walked over the bridge, dad met me about half way and we walked the rest together. Suffice to say, I was a weeping mess as we arrived on the other side.
Once you arrive at the foot of the bridge, there’s a gift shop, some monuments to the history of African Americans in the South as well as some monuments to some of the civil rights leaders of that time and a museum / institute of voting rights – and if you ever get to go to Selma make sure you take time to do the museum! It’s beautifully set up and honours not only the men and women of big names in the movement, but celebrates the ‘Footsoldiers’ the hundreds and thousands of men and women who marched, resisted, prayed and hoped that the narrative of what being African American, what being black in this nation, would change.
One of the monuments was a reminder of the lynchings that took place in the south. There was more on that in the other museum we went to later, but there was something so eerie, so deep about standing in front of those trees where my brothers and sisters would’ve no doubt hung from some time in history….India Arie wrote a song called ‘India’s song’ in which she sings about the journey of our ancestors and the impact this has had on generations…I was hearing that song in my heart and again, couldn’t help but break down crying. In that moment dad came and gave me the biggest hug. Gosh there is something so powerful in a father’s embrace! In that moment I was so aware of how we’re all connected, how history is written right now and how if anything matters, everything matters.
The most heartbreaking thing about my day in Selma though wasn’t even the reminder of a history I had studied so intently. It was the reality that a lot of Selma probably didn’t look much different from the days of Dr. King and the foot soldiers marching there. Not only that, but once back at the museum Ms Avery hosted, we learnt that she had never stopped fighting for the cause and had been arrested a few times in the past months for protesting – hear hear – voter suppression. So much still to do in this beautiful fatherland of mine…
As you can imagine, that day took it out of me. We didn’t talk much on the journey home – except that dad and Ms Regina too were glad that we had done the trip. They had never been and I was grateful I got to do it with them.
Yet again, I felt that my being there was about more than meeting dad. Meeting dad was the the obvious reason. But like so many things in life, there are layers to everything…and the longer I was there, the more I realised there were layers to this trip I was on.
I had no idea what I was saying…
They dropped me off and – after recording a little Vlog for my own records – I got ready for bed.
The next day we were due to leave for Clarksville, TN where two of my other siblings live and as I was falling asleep I couldn’t help but wonder how many more surprises were waiting for me…